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Tartuffe

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

"Collegiate" doesn't necessarily have to be a pejorative term, but when it comes to - even college theatre - it's seldom a great thing. Unfortunately, that's the first word that springs to mind to describe The Young Company's production of Tartuffe at the Classic Stage Company, although not for the reason you might think.

Yes, the performers attempting to bring life to the characters inhabiting Molière's classic comedy of religious hypocrisy are highly unpolished. But that's to be both expected and forgiven in students of any acting program, even Columbia's Graduate Theatre Division, as is the case here. The players' program bios are awash with professional credits, and if few of the performers do stellar work here, they all show promise. Most simply seem in need of a strong mentoring force to help them refine, hone, and appropriately apply their talents.

But they don't get that, or anything of the sort, from their director. Brian Kulick, CSC's artistic director and an instructor at Columbia, has apparently regressed to his own college days to helm a show that would be of questionable merit if led by a 20-year-old wunderkind. Most college directing students showing any reasonable promise would probably avoid most of the mistakes Kulick makes here, and not turn Tartuffe into the painfully unfunny, endless evening that Kulick has.

Granted, the Christopher Hampton translation he's using is ruthlessly colloquial, and doesn't provide much lyricism for them to work with. But if the refashioned text essentially requires a more contemporary setting for consistency of tone and language, it doesn't need - and would be better without - a Tartuffe reimagined as an East Indian mystic.

Yes, theatre's most famous hypocrite - for centuries able to beguile and swindle through force of personality - now uses his knowledge of his "colorful" status and vague mysteriousness to do the job for him. He tromps around the house of Orgon enchanting or annoying others with his impromptu meditations or chanting of unintelligible mantras; these isolated rubes, rich as they might be, can't know any better. (Marsha Ginsberg's set suggests an empty, estimable upstate manse, whose occupants would be unlikely to see or hear an Indian even if ordering takeout.)

This reduces Orgon from a man trying to recapture his own strength of faith into someone simply sampling the self-help flavor of the week. If we can't believe Orgon's innate desire for betterment for himself and his family, embodied in Tartuffe's apparent devotion to spirituality, then the play has no center, and nothing that happens over the next two hours has any meaning.

So the wise and wise-cracking maid, Dorine, can't shock or delight with her clear-eyed observations about the situation. Two seduction scenes between Tartuffe and Orgon's wife, Elmire, can have no bite because there's no real relationship between the two and Orgon, and nothing is really at stake. A subplot about Orgon's daughter, Mariane, and her attempts to marry the "unworthy" Valère is a time-waster rather than a magnification of larger concerns.

There's little point in focusing on Kulick's other questionable choices, like depicting onstage nearly every described offstage action or hinting at anti-Semitism by casting an ultra-Jewish Adrien Brody look-alike as Valère. Nor do specific casting or directing choices with the actors - making Orgon a dumb-oaf type, Dorine a drier-than-the-Sahara Brooklynite, or Tartuffe as unmagnetic and unbelievable as possible - have any significant impact. Without a workable dramatic foundation, does anything else matter?

At least Laura Heidinger, as Elmire, manages to approximate a real person. She's legitimately funny in her scenes with Tartuffe, demonstrating duplicity and desperation without needing to apply excessive force to make the laughs come. As she fends off the advances of the amorous ashram-dweller, she keeps a firm grip on her dignity and common sense while defending her virtue. In other words, she's living in the moment, not in the play.

That's a crucial skill, and the most welcome thing about this Tartuffe. It's also the closest realization of The Young Company's stated goal of "[bridging] the gap for emerging actors between the academic and the professional world," though the young performers are learning a great deal more as well: Sometimes bad shows do happen to good people, and sometimes bad directors happen to great shows. It's tragic, yes, for Tartuffe and those who love it, but it's an invaluable lesson that will only aid the up-and-coming cast throughout their careers and hopefully inspire them to do the fine work that Kulick has not.


Tartuffe
Through January 15
Running time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania